Home #Hwoodtimes REVIEW – “Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at the Public Theatre,”...

REVIEW – “Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at the Public Theatre,” by Gail Merrifield Papp

By Virginia Schneider

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/17/23 – Whether you’re an actor, writer, director, dancer, musician or interested in the history of culture in America, Gail Merrifield Papp’s astounding memoir of her relationship with her late husband, Joe Papp, the history of The Public Theatre, and the arduous, rewarding steps to form the nation’s premiere theatrical institution, is a must read. Get this book. Read it, study it, engrave it in your soul. This is how one creates an artistic mission with a great purpose.

A mellifluous writer and storyteller, Gail Papp meticulously and delightfully unrolls decades of fascinating details of hers and her husband’s lives and the development of The Public Theatre, intertwining them in an impossible to put down narrative. This book is a fascinating insight into the history of the cultural icon Joseph Papp, his artistic philosophy, the struggles and triumphs of not just art and artist but of the politics and social curves Joe Papp rode like a Harley. Beginning in the early 1960’s she paints vivid images of her own artistic life in New York, from her humble beginnings working as an assistant then graduating to Director of New Plays for The Public Theatre, receiving over 3000 new play submissions within just the first year of The Public’s new play program.

Here we see how Joe Papp envisioned a “free theatre for all” approach, taking massive leaps of faith without the footing or the funding but unflinching in pursuit of his goals. Here was a man who could spot talent instinctively and put his all into literally manifesting it for the public to enjoy. When The Normal Heart (which Gail Papp helped develop and championed) premiered at The Public in 1985 to deadly reviews by The New York Times, Papp gathered his team in the greenroom on opening night with a speech which defined him as a human being. “Every so often, maybe once in a decade, if even that, we have a play that can make a difference and affect the world we live in. I believe The Normal Heart is that kind of play and I’m going to run it in this theatre as long as I possibly can because it’s presence on the stage is so important.”  Like “once more into the breech,” that rallying cry to Papp’s team provided the confidence in both playwright and message, that would eventually see Larry Kramer’s play win a Tony, even though it took 25 years.

Papp made many such rallying cries in the media. His insistence in championing for equality and justice — whether Gay rights, non-existent in the 1980’s or against the Vietnam War, or championing for multicultural casting and programming — confirmed his reputation far and wide as a man and an artist who stood up for, and behind those, that he believed in.  His support was decisive in not just theatre programs getting greenlit, but in public policy and human rights issues as well.  Intelligent, well-educated besides being articulate, Joe Papp was a fearless and peerless speaker. One New York Times critic stated: “Listening to Joe Papp is like listening to a Renaissance scholar on Benzedrine.”

Growing up in a poor and diverse Brooklyn neighborhood, Papp would often visit the local parks. He had a good ear for the different rhythms and cadences of the various immigrant cultures in his neighborhood, which would help him identify with the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. Being curious besides poor, he learned early in life, the importance of understanding differences and being open to bridging them.  He would combine these different voices when he integrated jazz music into theatre, casting multi-cultural actors on stage, bringing new writers, directors and artists together to create a new ‘sound.’

In Public / Private we learn how Joe Papp lobbied politicians, teachers’ unions, bankers, government agencies, and others for funding to acquire the now famous Lafayette Street location exclusively to showcase new American writers, an unheard-of idea in 1967. We learn how in the early 1970’s Papp got waivers from 11 Broadway unions and raised over $2 million to fund free Shakespeare performances at the 1,042 seat Belasco Theatre twice daily for nine months providing a live theatre experience for over a half a million New York public school students.  And we get a ringside seat as to how in the mid-1960’s Joseph Papp fought the Parks Commissioner all the way to the New York Supreme Court, fighting for audiences to have free admission to Shakespeare in Central Park, as Papp believed that theatre should be accessible to all.

Gail Papp in red jacket side look color

In this biography of truly Shakespearian proportions, Ms. Papp recounts how Joe Papp, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bard, went head-to-head on television with cynical New York Times critic Clive Barnes over the artistic merit of a production of Hamlet, of how the world premiere of Hair was so fraught with turmoil team members threatened to quit before opening until Papp, as was his custom, met face to face with people to settle differences. Ms. Papp describes some of the endless examples of Joe Papp letter writing, conducting interviews, writing op-ed articles, all in an effort to fight for equality and justice in numerous social issues.  All of this energy and effort at a time when there was no internet, no computers, no email, only carbon paper, typewriters and personal dialogue. Papp blazed the trail with his sheer determination and strong beliefs. Ms. Papp states, “Although technologies change, the underlying strategies of civil resistance remain the same, organize, recruit, be visible, be heard and don’t stop.”

Gail Papp quotes conversations with stage luminaries and politicians, fascinating ‘directors notes’ to actors, stories of legendary artists like Raul Julia, George C. Scott and Meryl Streep. She tells of the irksome reviewers, organizational battles and the Papp’s personal ideology, providing a labyrinth of source material to give audiences a clear insider’s view of what made Joe Papp and his Public Theatre a success. But this is no tell all book. Gail Papp lovingly and respectfully shares this history lesson for our future, keeping it alive so that it might make a difference in how we look at our lives in these difficult times.

Gail Papp shares the personal ‘private’ life of herself and her husband’s families and friends with the depth and compassion of a poet. We journey her sorrow of the AIDS epidemic and the tragic loss it brought to the arts community, including Joe’s son Tony. We revel in the birthday parties, Christmas presents, and lunch conversations that wove the fabric of an amazing couple. But most importantly, we see how this lucky couple lived a love story bred from a partnership based on a shared mission. Her warmth and humanity clearly convey the mission and magical journey she took with her husband and collaborator, Joe Papp.

Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at The Public Theatre by Gail Merrifield Papp is available for pre-order now online at sites such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon.